Gabe Meier of The Astral Plane and FACT’s For Club Use Only column selects the year’s biggest, best and most innovative tracks from the shifting world of underground club music.
2017 proved once again that club music is thriving across the globe, as brand new artists and legends alike turned in material destined for classic status. While our monthly For Club Use Only column proved that fresh artists, labels and styles continue to emerge across the world, the past year also saw labels like Hyperdub, Planet Mu and Local Action embrace an eclectic release strategy that appealed to both younger fans of club music and older heads alike.
In Lisbon, the Príncipe crew had another great year, with a run of essential EPs and albums from the very best batida producers. In the UK, Night Slugs and Swing Ting reached across the Atlantic to Brooklyn’s fertile flex scene, releasing memorable records from Hitmakerchinx and Epic B respectively. In New York and New Jersey, familiar names like DJ Jayhood and MikeQ in continued to impress while younger artists such as AMG and DJ Yae pushed Jersey and Baltimore club into faster, more extreme territory.
But it wasn’t all a relentless push for innovation – 2017 felt like a celebration of the past as much as it did a journey into the future, a quality that’s reflected in many of the 25 best club tracks of 2017.
‘Day One’ (prod. NA)
Nguzunguzu producer NA and Jamaican vocalist 45DiBoss turned in one of the most slept on albums of the year with Love Power And Sound Mind, a startling tour de force of glassy earworm melodies and yearning vocals. The first LP on the duo’s Dise label is punctuated by gorgeous, introspective dancehall jams, but the undeniable hit of the album is ‘Day One’, an anthem that shows off both 45DiBoss’ broad vocal range and NA’s impressive grasp of gorgeous, intertwining melodies.
Ase Manual’s Gems LP set the pace for club music in 2016 and the Newark-born artist blew the competition out of the water again in 2017 with a near-constant stream of quality one-offs and remixes. ‘Feel It’ was accompanied by remixes from El Blanco Nino and DJ Lycox, but it’s Ase’s original that’s haunted us all year. Dense and emotional with a distinctly original progression, it’s more in line with techno than Jersey club.
‘Bodak Yellow (UNIIQU3 Bootleg)’
It would be a disservice to dancefloors across the world if we didn’t include one ‘Bodak Yellow’ remix on this list, and Jersey club queen UNIIQU3’s faithful bootleg takes the top spot. It’s more polished than the average club dub and UNIIQU3 smartly leaves Cardi B’s iconic vocal in place while letting loose a torrent of razor-sharp breaks, airhorns and signature Jersey bounce. Simply put, there’s no better party-starter around.
(The Death of Rave)
A crushing collection of tracks made exclusively from Slipknot songs, Manchester newcomer Croww’s debut on The Death of Rave is what you might get if you set a horror movie at the club. Far from a traditional dance track, ‘Prosthetics 3’ more than justifies the novelty of its source material, hitting an oddly resonant groove around its halfway point as blasts of scuzzy noise are played off a hellish sprinkler system of snare-like percussion.
CYPHR x Ms. Dynamite
Talk (Dis Fig Blend)
Dis Fig confidently stepped up as a producer in 2017 with a contribution to SHXME’s Support.FM compilation and a remix for astvaldur, but it was her blends that stole the show once again. On this brash, club-ready blend, Redlight & Ms. Dynamite’s ‘What You Talking About!?’ is the missing puzzle piece for CYPHR’s ‘Wetware’, filling the spaces of the Her Records rep’s widescreen instrumental.
Teased in mixes for Dazed and Noisey at the beginning of the year, Dinamarca’s ‘9PM’ is the trance revival we never knew we needed. Taking a slowed down ATB sample and throwing it into the baile funk blender may not seem like a good idea in theory, but in the hands of the co-head of Stockholm’s Staycore crew the results are dazzling.
Metro Boomin and Southside’s ‘Tunnel Vision’ beat is one of the year’s best rap instrumentals, but it was DJ Aaron’s flex dance music flip that became a staple in 100 BPM-loving DJs’ sets in 2017. While it’s all too brief at under two minutes long, the Brooklyn-based artist pitches up the original and adds a forceful drum arrangement that’s sure to inspire countless dance moves from the FDM massive.
Falling somewhere between a full on drum workout and free jazz experimentation, DJ Haram’s ‘Body Count’ is one of the year’s most visceral dance tracks. Devoid of any obvious genre signifiers, gunshots provide a handhold for dancers to latch on to as cyclonic percussion winds in and out of the drums.
DJ Jayhood, Nadus, DJ Sliink, Adolf Joker
A 2017 update of DJ Jayhood’s cult remix of T2’s ‘Heartbroken’ made with Nadus, DJ Sliink and Adolf Joker, this track is the closest thing you’ll get to a Jersey club posse cut. It was just one highlight of a massive 2017 for one of club music’s most talented and boundary-pushing artists, who was introduced to a whole new audience with a remastered retrospective of some of his best work on Local Action and a collaboration with Fetty Wap.
‘Saudades do Russel’
DJ Ninoo’s ‘Saudades do Russel’ is the highlight from Príncipe’s Firma do Txiga, a triple 7″ release also featuring tracks by K30 and Puto Anderson. Its languorous kuduro beat is likely to please dancers who enjoy the slower, melodic end of the batida spectrum as much as those who enjoy the tight percussion of artists like DJ Marfox and DJ Nigga Fox. 2017 may have been Principe’s best year yet, and this was the jewel in the crown.
E.M.M.A. has shown a deft ability to oscillate between restrained arrangements and carnivalesque joy throughout her discography, and both found a home on the ‘Mindmaze’/’Pumpkin Emoji’ 12” released on Coyote Records. ‘Mindmaze’ falls firmly into the latter category, an Encarta ‘95-inspired UK funky banger that feels like a throwback to the wonky era.
2017 was a breakthrough year for Brooklyn’s flex dance music, as scene figureheads Epic B and Hitmakerchinx got major releases on UK labels. The former’s Swing Ting debut, Late Night FlexN, made a huge splash on both sides of the Atlantic on its release in September, showing off Epic B’s ability to construct tough, dancehall-inspired riddims and brilliant pop hooks alike. ‘One Time’ falls into the latter category, an irresistibly auto-tuned smash as polished and chart-worthy as anything on radio this year.
A resurgent Hyperdub embraced an idiosyncratic range of sounds in 2017 from Klein, Fatima Al Qadiri and Lee Gamble to a compilation of Japanese video game music. But it was ‘Manual Decapitation’ from label mainstay Ikonika’s Distractions LP that gained near ubiquity over the summer. Defined by a slow, halftime rhythm and menacing low end balanced by a sweet chiming melody (those bells!), it became a stylistic meeting point for DJs from across the genre spectrum.
The Jlin phenomenon reached new heights on this year’s Black Origami, the Indiana native’s excellent second album for Planet Mu. Crafted from disembodied vocal samples, string sounds and an astonishing range of percussion, it swaps the mechanized assault of 2015’s Dark Energy for something more organic. It’s a dense, occasionally abstract listen, but tracks like ‘Kyanite’ show that Jlin still makes the most physically affecting dance music anywhere.
‘1984, Primero Ultimo’
A resident at Los Angeles’ standout Rail Up parties, Kelman Duran has been lighting up the city with his dembow remixes, edits, and beats for several years. The release of the 1804 KIDS LP gave the rest of the world a peek into the New York-born producer and multimedia artist’s world thanks to tracks like ‘1984, Primero Ultimo’ whose thoughtful choice of sample and ruminative ambience has stuck with us since its release.
Liquid City Motors
Part of a small, but dedicated scene in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Liquid City Motors shows his appreciation of the more extreme end of Midwestern dance music on the Current Source EP. Bringing in elements of footwork, ghettotech, jungle and hard house, LCM’s arrangements are fast and tough as nails but always faithful to their roots in Chicago, Detroit and London club styles. The title track closes out the release on a high note thanks to its four-on-the-floor kicks, texture-heavy breaks and a lead synth that sets a fully unhinged rave mood.
Counting both Objekt and Call Super among his fans, Manchester artist LOFT’s abstract and uncanny tracks have marked him out as a producer to watch in the world of leftfield techno. A highlight of the Three Settlements Four Ways EP, the eight-minute ‘funemployed’ is one of the year’s most exhausting yet euphoric moments, an opus of pattering drums and squishy-sticky bass notes that’s sure to leave you in a stupor.
Like most of M.E.S.H.’s Hesaitix album, the uncharacteristically bombastic ‘Search. Reveal.’ sounds like a souped up version of the clattering loops that come out of a M.E.S.H. live set, built on top of a foreboding drone and driven by elephantine synths that will leave your ears ringing for weeks. Hesaitix has plenty of quietly brilliant moments, but it’s the outrageousness of ‘Search. Reveal.’ that has us coming back time and time again.
‘It’s Over Bae (Florentino Remix)’
Florentino could easily have appeared five or six times in this list, but the Manchester-based producer’s kaleidoscopic track from the Club Chai Vol. 1 compilation gets the nod as a perfect example of his ruthless dancefloor efficiency. Taking on Maieli’s ‘It’s Over Bae’, the recent Mixpak signee adds enough braggadocio to turn the silky smooth original into an outrageous doubletime banger, replete with the signature “el mas romantico de los romanticos” tags that have become synonymous with his jump-up style.
‘She’s A Bitch (MikeQ Remix)’
While this isn’t the official MikeQ x Missy Elliot collaboration we’ve been waiting for since she asked him for some beats in 2012, we’ve been salivating over MikeQ’s insanely energetic remix of ‘She’s A Bitch’ after Missy’s reboot of the track at this year’s VH1 Hip Hop Honors show. If Missy’s “it’s about to get cunty” drop at the beginning doesn’t knock you off your feet then the ballroom phenom’s classic-meets-future arrangement certainly will.
‘I Miss My Ghetto’
Nídia’s Nídia é Má, Nídia é Fudida is an absolute joy of an album that showed the rest of the world what fans of the Principe label and the Portuguese-born, Bordeaux-based artist have known for years. Album highlight ‘I Miss My Ghetto’ walks a tightrope between melancholy and bliss as Nídia’s drums tell a slowly unraveling story that fights against the inherent linearity of most 4/4 dance music.
A long-time fixture of the Her Records roster, NKC had a banner year in 2017, turning his hard drum concept into a party and label and issuing his best release to date: Tincture. Simple but devastating, the title track finds the Londoner ratcheting up both the tempo and intensity. Nothing else released in 2017 sounded quite like ‘Tincture’ – expect plenty of imitators in 2018.
Nkisi’s two releases in 2017 didn’t exactly fly under the radar, but KILL and Ruin didn’t receive quite the critical acclaim as they might have if they had been released on bigger name labels. The restless, driving spirit of ‘XXX’ made it one of the year’s best club tracks though, heavily layered and decorated by little blown-out bass noises. This is not your parents’ techno.
(Goon Club Allstars)
Durban’s Rudeboyz returned to Goon Club Allstars this year with a vengeance, turning in four lithe, hard-hitting tracks on the Gqomwave EP and continuing to set the pace with their joyous, vibrant mixes. Gqomwave closer ‘As’Jableni’ is also a poignant swansong for the late T_D Snaxx, whose vocals add a welcome human dimension to the duo’s beat work.
‘Too Much (Vocal)’
Cleveland-based producer v1984 strayed further from the already tenuous grime context that surrounded 2016’s Becoming N(one) and moved towards fully abstracted, crystalline arrangements with the Pansori EP. Its release was accompanied by this Que, Trey Songz and Lizzle-assisted ‘Too Much’ bootleg that had been floating around in dub form for years, adding just enough space and twinkle to the original to make it a bonafide smash.
Read next: The 20 best house and techno tracks of 2017